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Welcome to another episode (?) of the CHEAT SHEET series, an area where I compile entirely random snippets of information that I have found to be useful in the past.  Today on the Cheat Sheet:

How to write a stupidly long paper.

This is a critically important skill if you are an undergraduate (Hell, if you’re a high school student) who is in any kind of writing-intensive class or program.  And like every academic skill, it begins OUTSIDE the classroom.  The first steps of this eight-step How-To guide, ideally, take place weeks or months before you start writing.  But I know that’s probably not how you run your life, so try to do Step 1 and 2 a few days before you start? Please? You won’t regret it.  (You might regret it)

Step 1: This is a critical step. Know what you’re writing. Read what you’re writing about.  Doesn’t matter what it is; there’s literature about it.  Read an example of what you want to write; are you writing an essay? Read an essay. (Montaigne is a good place to start; so is Orwell; both are masters of the essay genre)  Writing a novel? Read a novel.  But the bottom line is, you become a good writer by reading good writing.  Want to write a good essay? Read a good essay.

Step 2: Start writing before crunch time, but don’t start writing your paper.  Don’t write to the prompt.  Write about what you just read for Step 1.  Write about what you think about your class.  Write about anything tangentially associated with the prompt. The goal is to prime the pump and get the juices flowing.  DO NOT THROW THIS OUT. Keep this work in its own document.

Step 3: Now look at what you have written from Step 2, and at your notes from class.  If you’re lucky (and probably even if you’re not) you should have at least a few sentences in your writing that interest you.  They jump out at you.  You think “Hmm. I could say more about this.” Do that.  Grab anything that jumps out at you and plug it into your prompt.  Keep THAT in your Step 2 document as well, but in its own section at the bottom (or the top).

Step 3: You now already have some of your paper written, before you even started writing it.  Dang you’re smart. You go, Glen Coco.  Good on you.  Now it’s time to really begin.  Open up a new document and start writing your paper. I won’t tell you how to structure the introduction, or make transitions, or what voice to use—that depends on what you’re writing, and you already know that, because you read great examples in Step 1.  Write for a while.  Try to get halfway.

Step 4: Now you’re part of the way through your paper.  Take a break.  Do anything that doesn’t involve staring at a screen.  Eat something. Exercise. Build a giant robot. Grow a beard.  Don’t think about your paper.  At all.  You got this; don’t worry.  If you find yourself obsessing about the paper, don’t stress about that either–it’s normal to have it keep running through your head. Just keep exercising, building your robot, or growing your beard, and it will flow out of your thoughts.  Good self-care is key to every enterprise–and that includes writing a kick-ass academic paper.

Step 5:  Now that you’re all fresh and ready to go, return to your writing from Step 2. Look it over again.  Something new will jump out at you.  Maybe you’ll realize that half of what you’ve written was dumb.  Cut it from your paper—but don’t throw it away forever.  ANYTHING YOU CUT goes into your Step 2 document. If it doesn’t have a place in this paper, it will find its way into another one.

Step 6: Okay.  It’s the Eye of the Tiger.  Get into writing mode and slam it.  Don’t worry about quality. Just write until you can’t write no more.  Tie your prompt into everything that interests you about your Step 2 document. You might find some connections easier than others—and you should take advantage of that.  Develop those, and let the trickier ones retreat into your Step 2 doc. Let the writing find its own course. You were halfway at the end of Step 3; now take it the rest of the way.

Step 7: You should now be close to your character limit/word limit/page limit/final chapter.  Take a fifteen-minute break.  This is KEY.  I recommend a shower here. When your break is done, return to your document and READ IT OUT LOUD.  You’ll find a lot of typos that way.  Make edits as you go.

When you finish, go back and make an edit on that one thing that was bugging you.  If a section seems superfluous, cut it and drop it away into your Step 2 doc.  If you are intrigued by something you wrote, develop it.  Any really good sentence can always be clarified, reimagined, repurposed.  What are the repercussions of your thought? What does this mean for your field?  Keep doing this.  As your points grow denser, you’ll glide into the home stretch, and after re-reading it you should have a sense of where it’s going.  Bring it home.

Step 8: STOP.  Your paper should have an ending–I won’t lecture on structure–and you should have a nice fat document full of your fragmented ideas. You can dump that straight into your Academic Journal (if you don’t have one, you should make one now).  The relevant parts of your Step 2 document can be funneled into your next paper–so you already have part of your next assignment written before you start the process.

There are no further steps.  That’s it.  Your paper should be done.

If it’s not done, try one of these strategies for a productive break: 

Take a shower. Again, if necessary.  Sing if you can.

Pick a building.  Run around said building twice.

Build a beehive.

Pet a dog or other small animal.  In lieu of a dog, an undergraduate student will do.

Eat an entire jar of frosting.

Stare at a bright pink object for ten minutes and marvel at how green everything is.








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